Iguazu Falls, Argentina/Brazil

It’s pretty hard to classify what makes the largest waterfall in the world. Widest? Most volume of water falling? Tallest? Largest sheet? The native Guarani people named this place Iguazu — big water. Good enough. Iguazu Falls is considered the largest waterfall system in the world. It’s big enough to render anyone momentarily speechless.

Straddling the border between Brazil and Argentina, I decided to visit the falls from both sides on two consecutive days, staying in the city of Foz do Iguaçu on the Brazilian side, then taking a day trip to Puerto Iguazú on the Argentinian side. More of the falls are on the Argentinian side than the Brazilian one: that means that Brazil has the better panoramic view, but Argentina has far more trails alongside the falls.

The Brazilian side

You’d think two days staring at the same set of waterfalls from various angles would get boring, but no! The weather never stays the same in the tropical climate. The waterfalls take on a different character in dark skies, downpours, and blazing sun. They hide behind the fog and spray when there’s no wind, and then if you’re lucky, there’s a rainbow or two. Pathways take you from panoramas to points directly below and above various waterfalls, offering everything from scenic views to loud roars of rushing water to full-on soakings.

The Argentinian side

Surrounded by lush forest, no doubt helped by all the water, the falls are also home to plenty of animals. Coatis, monkeys, and capybaras appear on and around the paths, trying to sneak food from tourists, as if the environment didn’t already have enough for them. Large swarms of swifts zip in and out of the fog. Dragonflies seem to like all the puddles.

There are plenty of birds and butterflies around, though rather elusive to spot. Making it a little easier is the Parque das Aves (Bird Park), next to the Brazilian side of the falls. Exhibiting birds from around the world but especially featuring ones from South America, its large walk-in enclosures, loud as they are from all the squawking, were an absolutely worthwhile chance to see some very colourful large birds up close: flamingos, macaws, parakeets, parrots, toucans (my favourite), among many others, all in large groups, with some rather interesting social dynamics to boot. There’s also a walk-in enclosure for butterflies, as well as large reptiles… viewed from a much safer distance apart.

The falls are not far from the end of the Iguazu River, where it meets at the Paraná River. This T-junction on the water forms the borders known as the Triple Frontier, separating Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay. (Ciudad del Este, Paraguay is just across the Paraná River from Foz. It’s a city mostly known for cheap shopping and not much else. I gave it a pass.) There are monuments on all three sides marking the Triple Frontier: Argentina’s has a small crowd on a hill. Paraguay’s seems to be in the middle of nowhere with no one around. Brazil, however, decided to make theirs a gaudy tourist attraction, complete with fake village, a fountain, a Ferris wheel, some art, fancy lights, and a rather hokey dance show at night. I’ll give them some credit for making the dance stuff at least a bit culturally relevant, using tango, bottle dancing, and samba to represent Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil respectively. Minus points, however, for the borderline offensive “Indian” dance, using white dancers dressed as indigenous “savages” performing some sort of… interpretive ballet? Yikes. Well, at least the view over the water’s lovely.

I spent my final morning in Brazil visiting the Itaipu Dam, the largest in the world by annual energy output, which it shares with Paraguay. (China’s Three Gorges Dam is the largest overall by capacity, with Itaipú in second.) While the impact of flooding over such a large area, displacing 10,000 families, affecting wildlife and ecosystems, and demolishing Guaíra Falls, the world’s former largest waterfall by volume, was glossed over on the company tour, it seems that they make the effort to conserve the land the way it is now, with reforestation programs, wildlife relocation and land use protection, and scientific research centres. Plenty of jobs for the locals too.

The statistics of the dam are jaw-dropping. Costing US$18 billion, construction was done at a blistering speed, building the equivalent of a 20-story building every single hour with 30,000 employees working around the clock, using an amount of concrete equivalent to building a two-lane highway from Moscow to Lisbon, and an amount of iron and steel equivalent to 380 Eiffel Towers. Its spillway, when used to prevent the dam from overflowing, can have the force of 40 Iguazu Falls. While split 50-50 between Brazil and Paraguay, Paraguay sells most of its share of output (around 80% or more, if I remember correctly) back to Brazil due to their much smaller population, and yet the dam still provides 75% of Paraguay’s electricity needs and 17% of Brazil’s.

It’s hard to grasp the scale of the dam until you’re on it. From a distance, the wall looks like a wall, until you realise just how high it goes. (65 stories!) And so, for my last day in Brazil… I crossed unceremoniously into Paraguay for about three minutes, before heading back to town to grab my things and leave for the airport.

Bit of a weird way to end this trip! With so many tourists around the area, and both Paraguay and Argentina just across the rivers, all the language switching (Portuguese, Spanish, and French, Chinese, and English for all the international visitors) fried my brain. I feel like I’ve come full circle though: seven years ago, this blog started on a visit to Argentina. I missed out on Iguazu last time, but finally managed to make it back to South America to correct that. There’s plenty more for me to return to South America for — Paraguay is but one of the few remaining countries I haven’t visited on the continent.

And of course, there’s plenty for me to return to Brazil for. I gave my all these last few weeks, and I’m fully exhausted both physically and mentally in a way I don’t think I’ve ever been in any previous travels, not even the multi-month trips. (Maybe I’m just getting old!) Learning the language alone has vastly broadened my horizons in Brazil, and gave me a newfound appreciation for the place and its people. That alone is something that’ll bring me back to the country, let alone all the places I visited (and could spend more time in), and the many places I haven’t. But alas, it’ll have to be for another time!

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